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(Louie Palu/Photographs by Louie Palu)
(Louie Palu/Photographs by Louie Palu)

Canada's chronic asbestos problem Add to ...

Gagné’s neighbour across the street, Sylvain Menard, has worked all over the country, much of the time on roofing jobs that called for handling asbestos shingles. Is he concerned? Not remotely. He moved to Thetford Mines only a few months ago and discovered, to his delight, that housing prices are low and the pace of life easy. He says that he could not care less about asbestos; rather, he should be more worried about cigarettes. With that, he lights another smoke with a defiant smile.

Menard’s arrival may be a sign of things to come. For a long time, there was a constant dark cloud over Thetford Mines. Like all one-industry towns, it’s vulnerable to fluctuations in resource markets. But the curse of asbestosis and other lung diseases made things worse. It was not surprising that people, especially youngsters, drifted away in search of work.

One person who stayed, Ritchie Harnish, has done every job there was to do in his more than 40 years in the mine, from bagging asbestos to the delicate task of grading the stuff by the length of the fibres. He worked in the open pit in the baking summer, underground in the bitter winter. For a time he was president of the United Steelworkers local.

Now 60, Harnish is a bridge between the old ways and the new. He remembers his grandfather coming back from the mine, sending off huge clouds of asbestos dust as he patted his jacket and pants. But nowadays they’re filtering the air six times an hour at the mine. The place is spotless.

Harnish, who retired a few months ago, is happy to see changes that might signal the survival of the town where he’s spent his entire life. In the schools, they are asking the kids what would persuade them to stay in Thetford Mines. And on the streets of town, he is meeting old friends he has not seen for 40 or 50 years: “They’re coming back. It’s really not a bad place to live!”

It may be that Harnish is on the sunny side of a generational divide when it comes to safety standards at the mine. Over in Asbestos, Donald Nicholls, who is 80, went to work at the Jeffrey Mine a few weeks after he finished high school in the summer of 1950, not long after the Asbestos Strike came to its bitter end. The momentous events weren’t particularly relevant to him. If you grew up in Asbestos, there really wasn’t anywhere else to work. It was a steady job for 2,500 people.

Nicholls will tell you he’s had a pretty good life. At least up to this point, he says, and a rueful smile flickers across his gaunt face. He and two friends who graduated from high school at the same time all went to work in the mill. One died of a heart attack, and one died from asbestosis, which leaves just Nicholls, and he too is suffering from asbestosis.

He moves slowly and breathes with difficulty because his lungs are scarred with asbestos fibre. There is no cure for asbestosis, so at the age of 80 the prognosis seems clear enough. Mine and mill operations may be much cleaner these days, but for more than a century asbestos dust in the air was as omnipresent as the air itself. If you left your shoes on the floor near an open window, they’d be outlined in dust when you picked them up in the morning.

There was nothing about asbestos that was seen as threatening for children. In fact, teachers and parents gave the kids asbestos to play with, as if it were Plasticine. Donald Nicholls smiles: “We used to make models all the time.” And outside, asbestos fibres were a handy ingredient if you wanted to throw a snowball at a scab during a strike.



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While Nicholls was at the mine, across the country young Chuck Strahl was working as a logger in the forests of British Columbia, running a machine known as a yarder. He had to sit two feet from masses of asbestos dust, breathing it in and out, nine or 10 hours a day.

Many years later, in 2005, Strahl was diagnosed with mesothelioma. This meant that the successful career he’d made for himself in federal politics would not go as far as it might have. And it meant that he was at loggerheads with his boss, Stephen Harper, on the issue of asbestos.

The problem was not the use of asbestos in Canada, which has practically been outlawed. Indeed, Harper’s government is paying millions of dollars to remove asbestos from the Parliament Buildings. Rather, the problem is what Canadian asbestos is doing in other countries.

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